2013-01-06 Notes from the Bench

A commentary on this week’s music by Dr. James Gerber, Music Associate

“There Shall a Star from Jacob Come Forth” by Felix Mendelssohn

Today, we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany of our Lord. The word epiphany is derived from a Greek word that means manifestation or striking appearance. Today also begins the season of Epiphany and each Sunday, the Church commemorates an epiphany, an event recorded in scripture that revealed Jesus Christ as the Son of God. The first of these revelations is the visitation of the Magi, who observed a star which led them to the Christ child. January 6 is the traditional date for this feast day, but many congregations transfer this celebration to the Sunday closest to this date. As part of our Epiphany celebration, the choir will sing “There Shall a Star from Jacob Come Forth” by Felix Mendelssohn.

Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847), or just Felix Mendelssohn as he is generally known as in most English speaking countries, was an important German composer, pianist, organist and conductor of the early romantic era and today is among the most popular composers of that period. Mendelssohn was born into a prominent Jewish family, but was later baptized as a Christian within the Lutheran tradition. He was a child prodigy and a prolific and masterful composer at an early age. He founded the Leipzig Conservatoire, now known as the University of Music and Theatre Leipzig, in 1843, the oldest university of music in Germany.

Mendelssohn was greatly admired in Britain where he visited often, performing concerts and conducting the Philharmonic orchestra in London. Many of his works were premiered there and he had received multiple commissions from British publishers. Mendelssohn’s oeuvre includes five symphonies, two oratorios, concerti, chamber music, sacred and secular vocal works, and works for piano and organ. Mendelssohn is credited with the revival of interest in the compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach. At the age of 20, he conducting a performance of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” and later performed a number of Bach’s organ works.

“There Shall a Star from Jacob Come Forth” is a chorus movement from and unfinished oratorio by Mendelssohn posthumously titled “Christus” by his brother Paul. The text for this movement is an adaptation of a biblical prophecy written in the Book of Numbers (Nm. 24:17). There is a connection made between this passage and the Gospel of Matthew narrative read today. The movement concludes with the chorale, “Wie schön leuchtet der morgenstern” (How lovely shines the morning star) which may be found in the Hymnal, # 496/497. The chorale was composed by Philipp Nicolai (1556-1608) and was first published in the same collection of meditations as the chorale “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” (Awake, a voice calls to us).

“Wie schön leuchtet” is likewise considered one of the all-time great German chorales and has similarly been incorporated in numerous vocal and instrumental works. Among those instrumental works are two settings for organ which will be played as today’s prelude and postlude: a Chorale Fantasia by the baroque-era composer Dietrich Buxtehude (c.1637-1707) and a modern setting by Jan Bender (1909-1994).

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